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Math Digest

Summaries of Articles about Math in the Popular Press

Edited by Allyn Jackson, AMS
Contributors:
Mike Breen (AMS), Claudia Clark (freelance science writer), Lisa DeKeukelaere (Brown University), Annette Emerson (AMS)


October 2005

"Game Theorists Win Nobel Prize in Economics," by Michael Muskal. Los Angeles Times, 10 October 2005;
"Two Awarded Nobel Prize for Work in Economics," by Katrin Bennhold. New York Times and International Herald Tribune, 11 October 2005;
"Two Honored for the Theory and Practice of Game Theory," by Constance Holden. Science, 14 October 2005, page 212;
"Nobels Awarded in Economics, Literature, and Peace." Chronicle of Higher Education, 21 October 2005.

These articles report on the awarding of the Nobel Prize in Economics to Robert J. Aumann of the Center for Rationality at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Aumann is a mathematician specializing in game theory, which studies strategies for making decisions. The news release announcing the awarding of the prize says: "In many real-world situations, cooperation may be easier to sustain in a long-term relationship than in a single encounter. Analyses of short-run games are, thus, often too restrictive. Robert Aumann was the first to conduct a full-fledged formal analysis of so-called infinitely repeated games. His research identified exactly what outcomes can be upheld over time in long-run relations." Aumann received a PhD in mathematics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1955. He shares the prize with Thomas C. Schelling of the University of Maryland, who also works in game theory.

--- Allyn Jackson

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"'Simpsons' math jokes to get airing," by Michelle Matire. Oakland Tribune, 14 October 2005;
"Cal math lecture to feature binge-eating cartoon dad," by Steve Rubenstein. San Francisco Chronicle, 15 October 2005;
"Finding Ways to Make a Cube Root Funny," by Nicole Blume. The Daily Californian, 17 October 2005.

Greenwald, Westbrook and Keeler Professor Farnsworth of Futurama

More than 700 people attended a forum at the University of California, Berkeley about portrayals of mathematics and mathematicians in popular culture. Sarah Greenwald of Appalachian State University, and Jeff Westbrook and Ken Keeler, writers for the television shows The Simpsons and Futurama, spoke about mathematical references in the two shows. Keeler has a Ph.D. in applied mathematics from Harvard, while Westbrook has a Ph.D. in computer science from Princeton. The forum was sponsored by the Archimedes Society of the Mathematical Sciences Research Institute (MSRI). MSRI Director and former AMS president David Eisenbud is quoted in the Oakland Tribune article about how pervasive math is: "It's all around and can be quite charming." The San Francisco Chronicle article mistakenly claims that the following equation, 178212 + 184112 = 192212, which occurred in a Simpsons episode, is true. (Photograph courtesy of T.K. Subramanian.)

See also "Homer math catches up with the news," by Dick Rogers, The San Francisco Chronicle,, 16 December 2005, which is an extended correction to the article by Rubenstein.

--- Mike Breen

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"U.S. Urged to Back Science, Math," CBS News.com, 12 October 2005;
"Top Advisory Panel Warns of an Erosion of the U.S. Competitive Edge in Science," by William J. Broad. The New York Times, 13 October 2005;
"U.S. Spends Billions to Encourage Math and Science Students, but It's Unclear if Programs Work, Report Says," by Jeffrey Selingo. The Chronicle of Higher Education, 14 October 2005.

A committee of the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) urged the U.S. government "to launch a broad program supporting science education, research and innovation in an effort to maintain the nation's economic dominance." The NAS committee recommended 20 steps to help the U.S. maintain its global lead. Among the recommendations: "Improve math and science education in elementary and high schools by establishing a merit-based scholarship program to attract 10,000 students per year to careers teaching math and science," and "Provide 25,000 new undergraduate scholarships each year and 5,000 new graduate fellowships for U.S. citizens enrolled in physical science, life science and math programs in American colleges and universities." A PDF of the summary of the report, "Rising Above the Gathering Storm," is available on the National Academies Press website. The Chronicle of Higher Education article notes the NAS committee's report and a General Accounting Office (GAO) report which found that little is known about the results of federal programs designed to increase the number of students in math and science and urged Congress to examine existing programs' performance before establishing new programs. According to the report in 2004, 13 U.S. federal agencies spent US$2.8 billion on 207 such programs. A pdf of the report, "Higher Education: Federal Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics Programs and Related Trends" is available on the GAO's website.

--- Mike Breen

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Letter to the Editor, by Patricia Clark Kenschaft. Ms. Magazine, Fall 2005.

Mathematician Kenschaft thanks Ms. Magazine for its coverage of [Harvard University president] Larry Summers' "ill-considered comments" on women's ability in math. She notes that while researching her book, Change is Possible: Stories of Women and Minorities in Mathematics, she discovered that Harvard has never had a women tenured in its math department, while she did not find that true in any other university. Kenschaft cites the Ms. article's sidebar, which noted that females in some cultures "outpace males mathematically" and surmises that cultural differences are the reason. She concludes her letter with "I can cheerfully recommend mathematics as a career for anyone. There are more varied opportuniites than in most fields, and the math culture is trying to be equitable."

--- Annette Emerson

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"Warum gibt es so wenige Frauen in der Mathematik? (Why are there so few women in mathematics?)": Review of Complexities: Women in Mathematics, edited by Bettye Anne Case and Anne M. Leggett. Reviewed by George Szpiro. Neue Zürcher Zeitung, 30 October 2005.

The question posed in this article's title is not answered in the book under review. But the book nevertheless contains some valuable material, including biographies of women mathematicians and extracts from the AWM Newsletter, the publication of the Association for Women in Mathematics.

--- Allyn Jackson

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Big Ideas on TVOntario, hosted by Irshad Manji, 29 October 2005.

Megumi Harada

Megumi Harada, University of Toronto. Photograph by Jason Krygier-Baum.

Megumi Harada, a postdoctoral fellow in the department of mathematics, Bahen Centre for Information Technology, at the University of Toronto, was one of 10 finalists in a "Best Lecturer in Ontario" competition sponsored by Big Ideas, a program on TVOntario, a public edcucation TV network in Ontario. As part of the competition for the final winner, Harada gave a 40-minute televised public lecture, "Symmetry: Nature, Art, and Mathematics," which aired on 29 October 2005. Harada first explored the visual, intuitive concept of symmetry as exhibited in architecture and art from around the world. The presence of symmetry in a piece of art can focus the viewer's visual attention on the central element of the work. Harada used this as a metaphor to explore how the presence of symmetry can also aid our understanding of more abstract phenomena, as exhibited in the analysis of algebraic equations, Newtonian mechanics, or the structure of chemical molecules. She was also interviewed on the program in a 10 minute segment on her background and why she chose mathematics as a profession.

--- Annette Emerson

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"Abstract art appreciation is all about the hidden fractals," by Zeeya Merali. New Scientist, 29 October 2005, page 12.

This article discusses new research that uses fractals to analyze works of art. The basic idea is to compute the fractal dimension of the edges between highly contrasting adjacent colors in paintings. One of the researchers, physicist Jonas Mureika of Loyola Marymount University, put it this way: "We were reading between the lines to reveal a second painting hidden within the original." Mureika and his co-workers hope that this technique could lead to fractal dimension "signatures" of artists, which in turn would help to spot forgeries. They also conjecture that people may be drawn to some artists' works because the contrasting edges in their paintings tend to have high fractal dimension. Others dispute such speculations. Tsion Avital, an artist whose works were analyzed by Mureika, said, "The procedure may be very good for learning about visual perception, but for telling us about art, it has no value."

--- Allyn Jackson

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"Never give up": Interview with Timothy Gowers, by Justin Mullins. New Scientist, 29 October 2005, page 45.

This brief question-and-answer interview with Fields Medalist Timothy Gowers explores the nature of creativity in mathematics. Gowers believes that creativity in mathematics emerges less from wild leaps of imagination and more from immersing one's self in the problems at hand and accumulating many small insights and results. Obsession also plays an important role. "People tend to think of mathematics as some very mysterious thing that is done by people with special brains," Gowers comments. "But a large part of what makes mathematicians' brains special is the capacity to become obsessed with a maths problem."

--- Allyn Jackson

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"Math + drama = $100,000 award," by Kamal Al-Solaylee. The Globe and Mail, 26 October 2005.

John Mighton is a playwright with a Ph.D. in mathematics who recently won the Elinore and Lou Siminovitch Prize in Theatre, Canada's largest cash award for theatre. Mighton's play Half Life about memory loss has played in Canada and in Scotland. The award citation mentions "the profound combination of intellect and heart" in Mighton's work. He has also written a book, The Myth of Ability: Nurturing Mathematical Talent in Every Child.

--- Mike Breen

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"Rechnen mit dem Talmud (Computing with the Talmud)," by George Szpiro. Neue Zürcher Zeitung, 23 October 2005.

This article discuses a problem in the Jewish Talmud that was solved by this year's Nobel Prize winner in economics, Robert Aumann. The problem deals with three widows who had been promised more money than the estate of the deceased husband is worth. It turns out that the allocation the Talmud proposes corresponds to the "nucleolus" of modern game theory.

--- Allyn Jackson

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"Math whiz gives lecture at UNL," by Joanne Young. Lincoln Journal Star, 22 October 2005.

Michael Atiyah

"Sir Michael Atiyah's father knew his young son had the potential to become a mathematician when he began to notice his son would take the pocket money they used when they traveled to other countries and convert it from one currency into another to make a profit." So begins this article, which appeared in the local Lincoln, Nebraska, newspaper on the occasion of Michael Atiyah delivering the first Einstein Public Lecture, sponsored by the AMS. Atiyah presented the lecture on October 21, 2005, during the AMS sectional meeting at the University of Nebraska. The lecture celebrates Einstein's "annus mirabilis" and represents a new initiative on the part of the Society to raise public awareness of mathematics. The lecture was a hit, drawing a crowd of over 800 people who listened to Atiyah speak on the nature of space. The newspaper article consists of a brief introduction about Atiyah, followed by a question-and-answer interview with David Fowler, who writes a "math quiz" section for the paper. Fowler asks Atiyah about the differences between mathematics and physics, how theorems get named, and how mathematics operates at the international level. The full article is available online.

--- Allyn Jackson

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"Evolution of indirect reciprocity," by Martin A. Nowak and Karl Sigmund. Nature, 22 October 2005, page 1291.

"You scratch, and I'll scratch yours." The ideas behind this concept are quite simple, but if someone else scratches your back, will you still scratch mine? This is a question of indirect reciprocity, and the answer lies in the hands of gossip and altruism. What if you know that the last time I had the chance to help a friend, I didn't do it? You could improve society by punishing my wrongdoing and refusing to help me, but you might also earn a bad reputation for yourself if no one else knows why you left me hanging. Through a variety of simulations based on varying amounts of game players, rounds, and shared information, the researchers in this article uncover relationships between individual sacrifice and group cooperation.

--- Lisa DeKeukelaere

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"France: A Knot Mathematician, With a Twist," by Elisabeth Pain. Science, 21 October 2005, page 520.

knot

Julien Marché is a 25-year old mathematician who recently joined the Maîtres de Conférences at the Pierre and Marie Curie University in Paris. The article notes that to get a permanent position at 25 is very rare. He now looks forward to concentrating on research rather than on job-hunting. Marché's thesis is in knot theory, but he has now joined an existing research team and anticipates exploring new ideas.

--- Mike Breen

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"Math in Today's World," by James Arthur. Letter to the Editor, New York Times, 15 October 2005.

This letter was written by the current president of the AMS, James Arthur, a mathematician at the University of Toronto. Arthur wrote in response to another letter that appeared in the New York Times on 10 October 2005, which claimed that "College grads with degrees like one in theoretical mathematics have slim chances to obtain broad cultural capital or jobs." Not so, argued Arthur. Employers in advanced technology, biology, finance, and other areas compete to hire top mathematics graduates. "Moreover," he wrote, "the ability to think quantitatively and reason analytically is an indispensable part of anyone's education."

--- Allyn Jackson

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"NUMB3RS Racks Up Plaudits At Conference," by Robert A. Frahm. The Hartford Courant, 10 October 2005.

To build the mathematical interest of high school students, it helps if you throw some real-world mysteries in the mix. A new set of lesson plans based on the hit television show NUMB3RS, which depicts a brilliant mathematician who helps the FBI solve crimes, is doing just that. Written by a team of teachers, the plans harness the show's mass appeal in order to engage students in topics such as trigonometry and probability. The plans are available on the web, and reactions from educators at the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics were enthusiastic and positive. The series has helped not only to generate interest in mathematics, but also to portray mathematicians as real people.

--- Lisa DeKeukelaere

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"Meins klingelt anders (Mine rings differently)," by George Szpiro. Neue Zürcher Zeitung, 9 October 2005.

Ever wonder what Stephen Wolfram has been up to since the controversy aroused by his 2002 book A New Kind of Science? One thing he has been doing is developing new cell phone ring tones, based on cellular automata. This article discusses Wolfram's work and how the ring tones are created.

--- Allyn Jackson

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"Who Knew Math Was So Prime Time," by Dan Neil. Los Angeles Times Magazine, 9 October 2005.

Neil reflects on the number of recent dramas featuring mathematicians---Proof, NUMB3RS, A Beautiful Mind, Pi, and Good Will Hunting---and asks, "Why is it that all fictional mathematicians are geniuses, or at a minimum brilliant? ... And why do they seem to have such tempestuous work habits, scribbling sleeplessly through jags of insight and intuition? I'm pretty sure real-world mathematics is rather more deliberate, if not leisurely, pursuit, a craft perfected over many years." Neil puts forth that although "the entire apparatus of technology is built on higher mathematics," math phobia and innumeracy run rampant in America. "Never have so many relied on so few to tell us what the hell is going on. Mathematicians have acquired the status of hieratic otherness, a kind of geek priesthood, acting as intermediaries between the unfathomable and familiar." The author admits to the spookiness of math (evidenced by the recurrence of numbers in nature), but he thinks it's nice that the Charlie Epps character (in the TV program, NUMB3RS) seems relatively normal.

--- Annette Emerson

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"Who Knew?" by Lila Guterman. The Chronicle of Higher Education, 7 October 2005, page A16.

Parrot

A 28-year old parrot named Alex can not only talk but also apparently understands numbers, including zero. Alex also understands concepts such as "bigger" and "the same." The parrot is the research subject of Irene Pepperberg, a psychologist at Brandeis University. She wrote about Alex in the May issue of the Journal of Comparative Psychology.

--- Mike Breen

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"Math comes alive in whimsical Alice's Numberland". The Providence Journal, 6 October 2005.

The Providence Children's Museum presented Alice's Numberland for children in preschool through the second grade. "Donna Christy, associate professor of mathematics at Rhode Island College, plays tabletop croquet as the Queen of Hearts, one of the characters solving unusual math problems." Christy led the team of teachers and early education experts who created the program. The description of the play appeared in the newspaper's weekly calendar of events.

--- Annette Emerson

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"Die Mathematik des 20. Jahrhunderts (The mathematics of the 20th century)": Review of Saunders Mac Lane: A mathematical autobiography. Reviewed by George Szpiro. Neue Zürcher Zeitung, 5 October 2005.

Saunders Mac Lane, who died in 2005 at the age of 95, was witness to a wide swath of mathematical development during the twentieth century. The review says that while Mac Lane's personal life was unspectacular, the autobiography nevertheless makes worthwhile reading.

--- Allyn Jackson

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"Who's Counting: Risks and Rewards," by John Allen Paulos. ABCnews.com, 2 October 2005.

What would you rather have: US$100 million with no strings attached, or a lottery ticket with a 1 percent chance of winning US$1 billion? The expected value of your increase in fortunes is the same in both cases, yet most people would pick the easy US$100 million without a second thought. In this situation, the human aversion to risk trumps the predictions of probability and logic. When we have to make choices, we are likely to be cautious, even when the underlying mathematics tells us that betting it all will have us winning it all. This article presents several mathematical paradoxes, as well of the behavior of "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire" contestants, to reinforce these claims.

--- Lisa DeKeukelaere

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"Brilliant 10: Maryam Mirzakhani," by Elizabeth Svoboda. Popular Science, October 2005, page 58.

Mathematician Maryam Mirzakhani made this year's "Brilliant 10" in Popular Science, a list of very promising young researchers. Mirzakhani is an assistant professor at Princeton and a Clay Research Fellow. Her research is in geometry, and according to the article she discovered a new way to calculate "volumes of moduli spaces of curves---geometric objects whose points each represent a different hyperbolic surface." Says James Carlson, president of the Clay Mathematics Institute, "Maryam is great at finding new connections, she can rapidly move from a simple example to a complete proof of a deep and comprehensive theory."

--- Mike Breen

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"Information Takes Shape," by Curt Suplee. Discover, October 2005, pages 50-51.

To commemorate its 25th anniversary, Discover magazine lists in this issue 25 topics in the frontiers of science. One of them is data. Our knowledge is not keeping pace with the huge amount of data that is being created. This article explains how topology is being used to find patterns in data, especially in data with many dimensions (such as age, height, weight, income, ...). Past and current applications are cited in the article. As for the future? "Eventually, [Gunnar] Carlsson says this sort of analysis may help scientists understand how the brain works. `Neuroscience by itself does not know how complex families of images are encoded. Topological analysis could provide those critical insights.'" Carlsson is a mathematician at Stanford University.

--- Mike Breen

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